A Surprising Prime Minister

Léon Blum, circa 1894

When Léon Blum became president of the Council of Ministers of France—in effect, prime minister—on June 6, 1936, a world was turned on its head. He was the first socialist ever to occupy that position in France, and the first avowed Jew to head a major modern government anywhere (Benjamin Disraeli had converted at the age of twelve to the Church of England). Many admired his creative leadership of the Popular Front government from June 1936 until June 1937. Others reviled him almost hysterically as the embodiment of the “Judeo-Bolshevik peril.” He left no one indifferent.

Pierre Birnbaum, a French political sociologist who has written prolifically and with authority about the place of Jews in French politics and administration, along with the anti-Semitic reaction to their success, has given more attention to Blum’s Jewishness than earlier major biographers such as Joel Colton and Jean Lacouture. This is only to be expected of a volume in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. But even if Blum had wished to play down his Jewishness, his enemies would not have let him. On the day that the French Chamber of Deputies voted Blum into office, Xavier Vallat, deputy from the Ardêche, rose to regret that “this old Gallo-Roman country” was going to be governed by a “subtle Talmudist.” Vallat was to become in 1941 the Vichy regime’s first commissioner for the Jewish problem (commissaire aux questions juives).

Blum affirmed his Jewish identity proudly whenever he felt it was scorned. Significantly, he referred to himself provocatively as a Juif, rather than the politer Israélite, the term preferred by those who thought of themselves as French citizens coincidentally of Jewish background (e.g., Proust’s Charles Swann). Born in Paris to a middling commercial family that had left Alsace in the 1840s, he was raised observant and always professed respect for Jewish traditions, though as an adult he ceased to practice most of them. Birnbaum notes that he did not have his son circumcised.

Although his three wives were Jewish, only the first marriage was celebrated in a synagogue (the third was enacted while he was under house arrest in Germany in 1943). He gratefully thanked an admirer for sending him “a lovely ham hock” when he was in a Vichy French prison. Jewishness became for him less a theological position than a commitment to social justice. It meant loyalty to a family heritage plus a set of moral values closely aligned with the universalist, rationalist progressivism of the French republican tradition. It identified Judaism closely with the legacy of the French Revolution (that had, after all, made, for the first time, citizens of the Jews living in France).

Birnbaum also shows that, unlike most assimilated French Jews, Blum supported Zionism, despite its potential conflict with French assimilationist universalism. His was a “philanthropic Zionism” intended to aid the victims of pogroms elsewhere; he…

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